Radical Departures: The Cooperative Conscience

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Cooperative Movement
graphic from an article about the cooperative movement in Kenya on sokodirectory.com

Cooperatives are a national model of fiscal democracy in action. In an age where one percent of the population claims a larger slice of the economic pie and where the drive for short-term profits reveals staggering consequences around the world, the cooperative movement is poised to help offset the adverse effects of global economics.

Consider the opposing visions of what defines prosperity in this country; one side contends that liberating the wealthy from taxes and government regulation will trigger waves of investment and job creation, while the other side claims that inequality is the root of failures across the board—socially, economically, and environmentally. What is clear is that growth for growth’s sake is not only the wrong path, it’s also unsustainable.

Enter the cooperative movement. Industry estimates show approximately 30,000 cooperatives operating in the U.S., with the number of consumer cooperatives—similar to the model of Honest Weight Food Co-op—running close behind. Total revenues in this sector exceed $650 billion; the numbers of cooperative memberships and employment levels are equally impressive, anywhere from 350 million memberships and nearly one million jobs.

Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) logo
The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) is a political party founded in 1932 in Calgary, Alberta

This article will be the first in a series that examines the increased role of cooperatives in the United States. I will examine what the actual place and history of the cooperative movement is in light of the scenario painted above. And, given the extreme concentration of interests and wealth in our own economy and abroad, can we reasonably expect the cooperative model to have a lasting impact on the economy? Which cooperatives around the country represent best practices? And, if so, what is the actual measuring stick behind best practices? Upcoming articles will make the case that cooperatives, similar in scope to Honest Weight and others around the country, represent a real solution to major economic and social issues.

Again, keep in mind the cooperative business model’s radical departure from the standard profit motive of most businesses today. Co-ops are member-controlled and are generally motivated by the goal of providing services to their members, not by generating huge profits. It’s no coincidence that the Honest Weight Food Co-op, as one example, includes a “Statements of Conscience” underneath its mission statement. It’s based on serving human or community needs above short-term profitability.

Really though, does it matter to a co-op customer on a treasure hunt for Hawaiian Kona Deep Water Sea Salt that its local grocery store has a conscience? Organizations, after all, are creations or products of larger economic systems. Customers don’t typically expect an organization to advertise or practice the same moral codes that we expect from individuals.

The next article in this series will take a closer look at what it means to have a conscience as the driving force behind a business model—for the customer, as well as the organization.